Capabilities & the Ecological Question

Bendik-Keymer, Jeremy David (2016). 'Capabilities & the Ecological Question' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.


abstract
Roundtable session proposal
Capabilities & the Ecological Question
Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, Case Western Reserve University (confirmed)
Luke Craven, University of Sydney (confirmed)
Jozef Keulartz (in proxy), Wageningen University (confirmed)
Martha Nussbaum, University of Chicago (confirmed)
David Schlosberg, University of Sydney (confirmed)
Keywords: Ecology, Pluralism, Capability Sets, Animals, Meta-capability, Complexity Theory
One of the most difficult and emerging areas of capability theory is the ecological dimension of capabilities. There are two senses in which this word is used:
(1) Human and animal capabilities are entangled with ecological conditions. But this usage points to at least two further, distinct problems:
(a) Human capabilities depend on ecological conditions that act as meta-capabilities, i.e. the bundled systems that make human capabilities possible and which must themselves be enabled or not impeded.
(b) Other animals flourish as populations, not as individuals, which implies that attention to their capabilities may need another locus than the individual, as is the case with human beings. This locus is the population in a viable ecology.
(2) Capabilities are interdependent and flourish or wane in complex feedback relations. In other words, capabilities themselves are ecological in some sense. But this usage also has several dimensions:
(a) The grasp of capabilities in practice requires the grasp of the complex relations between capability sets.
(b) The normative project of promoting capabilities requires an understanding of (2a) in order to provide priority interventions to promote capabilities.
The goal of this roundtable is to bring together a number of scholars who are working back and forth between (1) and (2), both of which have erupted around the work of Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum has been pressed by both Schlosberg and Keulartz in regard to (1) and has now begun to modify her biocentric individualism slowly, whereas Nussbaum has herself referenced (2) in public talks, for instance in at HDCA 2015 at Georgetown University.
There is clearly polysemantic equivocation in the use of the term “ecological,” and yet even passing reflection on the material (sense 1) and formal (sense 2) uses of the word shows that there is are substantial relations between the two that deserve clarification. For instance, the promotion of capabilities as an interdependent and positively reinforcing set (sense 2a) would seem to depend on suitable ecological conditions and pathways (sense 1a). Or, when considering populations (sense 1b), the desired outcomes for population vitality (however that may be determined) would seem to depend on both understanding the causal pathways around capability sets (sense 2a) and the optimal prioritization of specific capability interventions for producing the desired outcomes (sense 2b).
There is a great deal of work to be done here, which we have only barely started. Its relevance for practitioners is extremely high, as real world conditions are never disentangled but are always complex meshes of social and natural ecologies with more variables than can be isolated theoretically. Capability theory has made great analytical strides beyond aggregate methods by isolating the atomic parts necessary for human flourishing, but the next horizon of capabilities exists in making capabilities properly relational within the entire context of human life, which includes other species, and the biosphere as a whole. This roundtable’s agenda, in addition to concerning traditionally environmental researchers and practitioners, “will likely be of interest to practitioners / researchers working on ‘disadvantage’ more broadly (Luke Craven, correspondence).”
We have chosen the roundtable format, because we want to brainstorm together and with the audience about the emerging and needed dimensions of this new horizon of capability theory. We want practitoners and policy-makers to weigh in and challenge theorists to construct a real theory. In addition, Palgrave-Macmillan is interested in developing this topic into a book.

scroll to top